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An Honest Look at JFK Becomes a Teachable Moment

Meghan Mathis

An Honest Look at JFK Becomes a Teachable MomentI recently ducked into an American History classroom to observe a student and witnessed an interesting and unexpected teachable moment.  The students were watching (or sleeping through) a documentary about the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  The film was discussing what our 35th President was like with his family, his wife and children.  It was obvious that one or two students were interested, a few were nobly trying to pay attention, but over half were completely zoned out.  That is, until the history teacher quietly said to me in a joking tone, “Yeah, he was quite the family man…when he wasn’t jumping into the bed of any female within a half mile radius of him!”  And that’s when it happened…

As any experienced teacher has witnessed, you can stand in front of a class and loudly state that they will have a test on Monday – and come Monday half of them will swear you never said a word about it. But, whisper something vaguely inappropriate in the back of the classroom during a movie, and the entire student body will hear you with perfect clarity.  Within three seconds of the words leaving my colleague’s lips, three different students had turned around, “What did you say?”  “He was a player?”  “He cheated on his wife?  But he had kids!

Their excited statements only served to bring more attention to the comment that had revealed to the class that, while President Kennedy was an inspirational leader, he was also (by many accounts) a noted philanderer.  I was a bit horrified until I realized that, in a matter of minutes, the classroom had gone from passively disinterested to actively engaged.  If we could turn it in an appropriate direction, this could be an amazing lesson on how our 35th President was flawed, but still a tremendous leader – a very important concept for our young people to hear and understand.

Many of the historical figures we introduce our students to are flawed, just like the rest of us.  Yet, all too often, we only focus on the positive contributions they made, ignoring that they were humans with both strengths and weaknesses.  While our curriculums are slowly changing to address a more complete view of history, there are many reasons why we should embrace opportunities to show our students (especially our upper-level students) that all people are complex, and that it doesn’t make them any less worthy of our time – in fact, it might make them more worthy of study.

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It’s Honest

As educators, it is our job to teach young people not only the essential information about our subject matter, but also the critical thinking skills they will need to be responsible adults, capable of participating positively in their world.  We are responsible for teaching them to view the world not in black and white terms, but with an analytical eye. Not teaching them that the people they learn about had flaws, made mistakes, and were not perfect is dishonest.  As we strive to be honest with our students in our day-to-day interactions, we should also strive to make sure our lessons are honest.  It makes for better lessons and more critically-minded students.

It’s Interesting

There are only so many times you can hear about who discovered what, the important difference this person made to the world, and how wonderful she was for her country, before it all starts to become a bit dull.  Gee, weren’t they great?  They were so smart, so good, so noble.  I bet they never cheated on a test or played hooky from schoolThis is someone who has nothing in common with me.

But it’s far more interesting to pair the noble contributions of people throughout history with some of their secrets.  Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant politician; he founded a college and made furniture.  All that awesomeness can be somewhat intimidating.  What could the typical high school student have in common with someone like that?  But when you mention that he was, reportedly, also a terrible public speaker who suffered from horrible stage fright, he suddenly he becomes a bit more accessible.  A student who hates giving class presentations finds out that they have something in common with one of our most intelligent statesmen. 

It’s Important

Teaching our students not to view others in one-sided terms is an integral skill.  It teaches young people that both positive and negative characteristics can be found in all people.  Goodness, bravery, intelligence, kindness, and other positive traits do not belong solely to perfect individuals.  Cruelty, selfishness, cowardice, and other negative traits are not only found in evil men and woman who are easily recognized and avoided - these are characteristics we all possess.  Both positive and negative traits exist in all people; it is the choices we make that determine how we will be viewed by others and remembered when we’re gone.  This is vitally important because it shows students that they do not have to be perfect to be good – they just have to do good when they need to.  It also shows them that it isn’t just evil people who do bad things – often, evil is committed by otherwise good people not standing up for what they know is right. 


With President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 96th birthday coming up soon, (May 29th) I urge you to take a look at your lessons and see if there are opportunities to introduce your students to the many shades of grey that exist in the world.  JFK was a remarkable leader, an inspirational speaker, and his role in the Civil Rights Movement changed our nation for the better.  This intimidating resume makes the man a myth, unattainable and unreachable.  But when you give your students a complete picture – it does not diminish his tremendous accomplishments, it teaches them that they do not have to be perfect to make a difference, they simply have to believe in themselves and make the right choices when those important moments arise.  By teaching this, we are doing our small part in making sure our students become the type of remarkable adults future educators might be teaching their students about some day.